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Astros learned much in rocky 2013 season

Castro emerged as All-Star; promising young arms stepped up in Majors

HOUSTON -- The Astros' first season in the American League proved to be one of the most difficult and challenging in the franchise's 52-year history, with the club losing a team-record 111 games, including the final 15 games -- also a franchise record -- to end the season.

Perhaps not many expected the Astros to lose quite as many games as they did, but those in charge viewed the season through a larger scope in terms of their rebuilding process. The Astros had kids handling key positions on the diamond and had abundant young arms on the mound with the goal of finding out who can play and who won't be a part of the future.

As a result, the Astros went 25-51 against the AL West, including 4-15 against division champion Oakland and 2-17 against in-state rival Texas. Conversely, they proved to be a thorn in the side of the Angels (10-9) and the Mariners (9-10).

Along the way, they discovered they had a legit third baseman in Matt Dominguez, they found a potential dynamic player in outfielder Robbie Grossman and were thrilled with what starters Jarred Cosart, Brad Peacock and Brett Oberholtzer did in their first shots in the rotation. Young relievers Josh Zeid, Kevin Chapman, Chia-Jen Lo and Josh Fields also proved to be capable hands in their Major League debuts.

Of course, playing so many youngsters -- 14 players made their debut in 2013 -- meant the Astros took some lumps. In essence, it was probably the Astros' final season in training wheels. There's nowhere to go but up for the Astros, who will be a year older and more experienced in 2014.

Here are the Astros' top five storylines from 2013:

5. Owner Jim Crane expands the payroll.

After years of trading away their experienced, high-priced veteran players in exchange for prospects in an effort to beef up the Minor League system, the Astros reached the point in their rebuilding plan where it was time to spend some money.

No, Houston wasn't going to be a player in the Robinson Cano sweepstakes, but owner Jim Crane and general manager Jeff Luhnow made a commitment to spend some money in an effort to be more competitive. The Astros ended 2013 with a payroll of about $13 million, which was easily the lowest in baseball.

The words of management proved not to be lip service. Within a five-day span in early December, the Astros traded for Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler, who's set to make $7.35 million in 2014, and signed starting pitcher Scott Feldman and reliever Chad Qualls to multi-year deals. And with the Astros still wanting to add another veteran reliever and another bat, the Astros were ready to add even more payroll.

4. Reid Ryan named president of business operations.

There is perhaps no more recognizable name in baseball in Texas than Ryan. Nolan Ryan is a Hall of Famer who played nine of his 27 years in Houston and tacked on five more in Arlington at the end of his career before being inducted into Cooperstown as baseball's all-time strikeout king.

His oldest son, Reid, didn't make it too far on the field, but off the field he's been tremendously successful. After Ryan founded and ran the Triple-A Round Rock Express and Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks, the Astros hired him in May to run their business operations in a wildly popular move among Houston fans.

The affable Ryan soon became a familiar face at Minute Maid Park, interacting with fans and listening to their concerns and suggestions about the Astros -- the team Reid grew up cheering for while growing up in nearby Alvin.

During the 1980s, Ryan was a bat boy for the Astros while his father was a pitcher. He later pitched in the Minor Leagues for two seasons (1994-95) in the Rangers system after being selected in the 17th round of the 1994 June Draft.

Ryan was previously president and CEO of Ryan-Sanders Baseball, which owned and operated Corpus Christi and Round Rock. Corpus Christi is an affiliate of the Astros, and Round Rock is an affiliate of the Rangers after previously serving as the Double-A and Triple-A affiliate of the Astros.

Reid Ryan's hiring and the departure of Nolan Ryan with the Rangers began speculation that the Ryan Express could return to Houston someday.

3. Astros set the Major League strikeout record.

It didn't take the Astros long to gain the label as a strikeout-prone team in 2013. They struck out 56 times in the season's first four games, putting them on a record pace that continued through most of the season. Houston wound up striking out a Major League-record 1,535 times, breaking Arizona's record of 1,529 set in 2010.

Chris Carter, who was acquired in February from Oakland, struck out a club-record 212 times, which was the third-most in Major League history. Adam Dunn whiffed 222 times in 2012 and Mark Reynolds struck out 223 times in 2009.

But Carter wasn't the only culprit. Jason Castro (130), Brandon Barnes (127) and Brett Wallace (104) each topped 100 strikeouts, and Carlos Pena (89) and Rick Ankiel (35) were strikeout machines before they were sent away in the middle of the season.

The Astros added Carter, Pena and Ankiel in a move to increase power, and Carter did wind up hitting 29 home runs despite striking out in 36 percent of his plate appearances.

2. The emergence of All-Star catcher Jason Castro.

He was the first Draft pick of general manager Ed Wade and scouting director Bobby Heck during their time in Houston, and Castro finally blossomed into the player most expected he would become with a breakout 2013 season.

Finally healthy after missing the entire 2011 season following major knee surgery, Castro had arguably the best offensive season by a catcher in Astros history. A two-time AL Player of the Week and an AL All-Star, he hit .276 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs in a career-high 120 games. He missed the final month of the season after having a cyst drained in his knee.

Castro set club records for catchers in homers, doubles (35), slugging percentage (.485) and OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage, .835), and his 1.067 OPS in August ranked third in the AL behind MVP Miguel Cabrera (1.162) and Mike Trout (1.090). He also made strides defensively.

1. Several of the club's top prospects arrive in Houston.

Astros fans had been reading since the club's National League days about the talented prospects the team had acquired through the Draft and trades over the last few years, and they finally got a chance to many of them in a Major League uniform in 2013.

The Astros had 14 players make their Major League debuts in 2013, including some of their top prospects. At the top of the list was Cosart, who made his debut July 12 at Tampa Bay and flirted with a no-hitter. He wound up making 10 starts, going 1-1 with a 1.95 ERA.

Lefty Oberholtzer was just as impressive, going 4-5 with a 2.24 ERA in 10 starts, including a pair of complete games. Then there was rookie Peacock, who went 4-3 with a 3.64 ERA with six quality starts in his final nine outings. Cosart, Oberholtzer, Peacock and fellow rookie Paul Clemens posted a combined 2.70 ERA in 35 starts from July 12 to the end of the season.

The Astros also got a glimpse of rookie relievers Zeid, Chapman, Lo and Fields, as well as young third baseman Dominguez and rookie outfielder Grossman. With more prospects on the way from baseball's best farm system, the future looks bright.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.
Read More: Houston Astros, Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, Robbie Grossman, Josh Zeid, Kevin Chapman, Brad Peacock, Matt Dominguez, Chia-Jen Lo, Jason Castro, Chris Carter, Josh Fields